At a roundtable discussion about California’s sanctuary policies on Wednesday, President Donald Trump made a remark that quickly dominated the news. Responding to a sheriff who complained that “there could be an MS-13 member I know about” but “cannot tell ICE about,” because of California’s immigrant-friendly policies, the president declared:
We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in—and we’re stopping a lot of them—but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.
Trump’s dehumanizing rhetoric sparked instant controversy. Some outlets asserted that the president had called immigrants animals and noted that genocides are frequently preceded by the dehumanization of a minority group. Others hedged their bets, noting that Trump may have been referring to members of the MS-13 gang, the subject of the preceding comment. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that his father “was specifically talking about MS-13,” adding that “they are animals.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was “very clearly” referring to gang members and scolded the media for “defend[ing] MS-13.” The AP even deleted a tweet reporting on Trump’s response because “it wasn’t made clear that he was speaking after a comment about gang members.”
This dispute largely misses the point. Yes, it is important to take the president’s words in context. Let’s consider that context: From Day 1, the Trump administration has strived to collapse the distinction between undocumented immigrants and gang members. Under Trump’s authority, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has ramped up its efforts to categorize law-abiding immigrants as “gang-affiliated,” thereby subjecting them to detention and deportation. Trump may have been referring to MS-13 specifically in his roundtable comment. But to the president and his immigration enforcement officers, virtually all Latino immigrants are possible MS-13 members. The two groups might as well be indistinguishable.
Trump, of course, has long implied that a majority of Latino immigrants are criminals. In his presidential announcement, he notoriously proclaimed: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
This view has clearly fueled his governing philosophy. Shortly after entering office, Trump made two moves that eroded the critical distinction between criminal aliens and all others immigrants. First, he issued executive orders that dramatically expanded immigration agents’ ability to target, detain, and deport any undocumented immigrant, including those accused of no crime. Second, he appointed Thomas Homan to lead ICE, who quickly hired Jon Feere as a “special adviser.”
Feere previously worked at the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration advocacy groups founded by John Tanton. An infamous white nationalist, Tanton once wrote that “for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” He also warned of a “Latin onslaught” and questioned whether minorities “can run an advanced society.”
At CIS, Feere focused on MS-13, arguing that, in order to take down the gang, law enforcement would need to engage in a broader crackdown on immigrant communities. In 2008, he authored a white paper arguing that lawmakers should cite the threat posed by MS-13 to justify much harsher enforcement of immigration laws. In a video flagged by the Intercept’s Lee Fang, Feere asserted that the best way to expel MS-13 is to drive immigrants out of public life under the assumption that a huge number of seemingly innocent individuals are secretly affiliated with gangs.
It is no surprise that Homan hired Feere; the ICE chief frequently deploys xenophobic rhetoric and reportedly refers to undocumented immigrants as “tonks,” a slur derived from the sound of beating in an immigrant’s head. Once installed at the agency, Feere found that the groundwork for his CIS proposals had already been laid. Since 2006, ICE has been building a database of ostensible gang members that uses outrageously vague criteria as gang-affiliated, allowing agents to categorize an immigrant as a gang member on the basis of uncorroborated hearsay. The agency also draws from state-level databases like CalGang that are similarly overinclusive. For example, a state audit of CalGang in 2016 found that 42 individuals under the age of 1 were considered gang members—including 28 infants who allegedly “admitted to being gang members.” A few other examples of individuals falsely labeled as gang members:
• ICE accused an undocumented immigrant named Sergio of being a gang member because he had the letters “H.S.” tattooed above one eyebrow. “H.S.” were the initials of his daughter, but ICE insisted that they stood for the “Hillside gang.” No such gang exists.
• Police officers in Salt Lake City conducted a “gang sweep” in a high school by entering classrooms, photographing 24 students of color, and adding them to a gang database. They appear to have targeted these students exclusively on the basis of their skin color.
• ICE revoked a Dreamer’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program status and accused him of being “gang-affiliated” because he had a tattoo commemorating his birthplace. A federal judge later ruled that ICE agents were lying about the Dreamer’s alleged gang affiliation.
It is essentially impossible to have one’s name removed from a gang database. And as soon as immigrants has been added to the system, they become high priorities for detention and deportation. That’s why, under Trump, ICE agents are eager to use whatever “evidence” they can to accuse as many immigrants as possible of membership in a gang. In 2017, one ICE officer, candidly acknowledged this strategy to CBS correspondent Margaret Brennan. During a ride-along with ICE during an immigration raid, Brennan witnessed agents classify an individual as an associate of MS-13 without any indication that he actually was. She asked an ICE agent, Jason Molina, why they’d given the immigrant this groundless label.
“The purpose of classifying him as a gang member or a gang associate,” Molina responded, “is because once he goes in front of an immigration judge, we don’t want him to get bail, because the whole point of this operation is to get these known gang members off the street.” Molina effectively conceded that his agency maligns undocumented immigrants as gang members in order to justify their arrest and expedite their deportation. Evidence of gang membership is optional.
So, back to the question at hand. Who are the animals to whom Trump referred on Wednesday? Sure, he may have meant individuals accused by his administration of associating with MS-13. But since ICE operates under the assumption that every undocumented immigrant it nabs is an MS-13 member, the distinction disappears. With the president’s blessing, America’s immigration agents have come to brand all undocumented immigrants as gang members. Trump’s defenders want us to consider his comments in context. And the context is that “animals” are whomever ICE decides to dehumanize for their own convenience.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.